Analysis

With Gaza a Priority, Israel Seeks to Quell Temple Mount Tensions

Meanwhile, Israeli defense officials say Assad has no idea what Hezbollah is doing under his nose in the Golan Heights

Muslim worshipers and a cleric pray in front of a barrier after Israeli border police closed one of the entrances of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Jerusalem, March 12, 2019.
AFP

Despite the hurling of a firebomb at a police position and the forces’ subsequent decision to close all entrances to the Temple Mount, what was most apparent in Jerusalem on Tuesday was the joint effort to contain the conflict. Israel, with Jordanian assistance, seeks to prevent a flare-up at the Jerusalem site, partly in light of the latest events in the Gaza Strip.

While it has not been announced officially, the priorities of the Netanyahu government seem clear: Gaza first. Enormous efforts are being made in the Strip to avoid a military confrontation before the April 9 general election.

>> Read more: Caution on the Temple Mount | Editorial ■ Recent clashes have Israel, Palestinians on the brink of broad escalation | Analysis

A possible escalation in Jerusalem is worrying in itself, particularly in light of the religious element of the tension there, but also because of the growing danger that it could fan the flames in Gaza, as has happened many times. The last time this happened it was over the moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in May. Over two days, 60 Palestinian demonstrators were killed in confrontations with the army at the Gaza border fence.

For now it appears that neither the Jordanians nor Fatah officials in Jerusalem, the two groups with the greatest influence on the Waqf Muslim trust that administers the Temple Mount, want a confrontation at the site. To them, the episode of the prayer area inside the Golden Gate was handled successfully. They unilaterally violated the status quo at the site.

Israel, meanwhile, despite its tough talk, has so far done nothing to remove the Muslims from the structure, which was opened after being closed by a police order for 16 years. On Friday some 40,000 Muslims prayed on the Temple Mount amid a very small number of incidents. And on Tuesday the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court postponed by one week its deliberations on the closure, citing efforts by the parties to reach a compromise out of court.

Still pending is a proposal to close the building for extensive renovations. Hovering in the background is the realization that the call “Al-Aqsa is in danger” has the power to reignite the territories and also spark unrest among Israel’s Arab citizens.

The West Bank has been tense in any event lately. In the last 48 hours or so, two Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli soldiers: a Hebron man who tried to stab a soldier, and a resident of Salfit, in Samaria, during a demonstration. In a third incident, someone fired at an Israeli car in Samaria.

In Gaza, Israeli efforts to deter Hamas from playing with fire are clear. Immigrant Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of the security cabinet, warned Tuesday that if necessary the army would take decisive action in the Strip even before the election. The army, too, has been broadcasting its preparations for a possible confrontation in Gaza.

>> Read more: Israel may talk tough, but lets Hamas corner it into a compromise to avoid escalation | Analysis ■ Hamas seeks concessions from Israel before escalating conflict | Analysis

Nor has Cairo abandoned the arena. The Egyptian delegation to the Strip has been vigorously briefing the Palestinian media about the gestures the Palestinians can expect if only they can keep the peace.

It’s obvious to everyone that this is an attempt to buy time until the election, but even so the promises are many and varied. They include additional aid from Qatar, an increase in the number of Gaza businessmen to be let into Israel and the West Bank, an increase in diesel-oil reserves (needed for the Strip’s power plant), and greater traffic through the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

Hezbollah intelligence network

Israel is using intelligence and psychological warfare at the Syrian border in the Golan Heights as well. On Wednesday, the Israel Defense Forces published details about a covert intelligence network that Hezbollah has been cultivating since May on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

>> Hezbollah entrenching itself in Syrian Golan, establishing terror infrastructure, Israeli army says

In Iran and Hezbollah, only a few officials have known about this secret. Its director, according to multiple intelligence people in the IDF’s Northern Command, is Abu Hussein Sajid, a long-serving officer in Hezbollah with experience fighting Israel in south Lebanon and operating Shi’ite militias in Iraq. He served five years in prison for killing five U.S. soldiers in bomb attacks, before returning to Lebanon and then to Syria.

This network was built on the ruins of two previous networks operated by Hezbollah in the Syrian Golan Heights, headed by Jihad Mughniyeh and Samir Kuntar. Both men were assassinated in airstrikes attributed to Israel.

This time, it seems a decision was made to use soft power — sending threatening messages — instead of explosives. Israeli defense officials say Syrian President Bashar Assad doesn’t even know what Hezbollah is doing under his nose in the Golan. On Wednesday morning he found out — and it appears the Israeli assumption is that Hezbollah will reconsider its efforts in the Golan.

Israeli intelligence believes the network, which is based on operatives from villages in southern Syria, aims in the first stage to gather intelligence on IDF activity, which it will use to create a larger network that could open a second front against Israel during any military confrontation in the Golan.

One interesting point is what the development shows about Russia’s promises. Last summer Israel agreed not to interfere with Damascus when it, with Russian and Iranian help, recovered control over all of southern Syria including the Syrian Golan Heights. In exchange, Moscow promised to keep the Iranians and their Shi’ite militias 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the Israeli border.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even boasted about the accomplishment, attributing it to his good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In practice, the Russians let the Iranians continue to operate unfettered in the Damascus area. Now it seems they also took no action to stop Hezbollah, which operated much closer to the Israeli border.